Soaring Eagles: Preserving Tradition Among Native American Youth

The ground trembles with the beat of drums, while fancy shawls and colorful regalia shimmer in the setting sun as young dancers prance in a circle surrounded by elders, family members and friends. San Diego’s Balboa Park has been temporarily transformed into a mini pow-wow, while the Soaring Eagles practice.

Vicki Gambala sits prominently on the periphery of the circle nodding approvingly as the young dancers go through their moves. Gambala, a Cherokee originally from Oklahoma, has great reason to be proud of the Soaring Eagles as they are in large part a result of her vision. “These are my kids,” she says lovingly.

Recently retired from the Indian Education Program in San Diego County, Gambala has been involved with the city’s Native American community for more than 30 years. She says she has always been aware of the plight of urban Indians and has worked hard to educate others to bring this misunderstood and unrecognized community to light.

Urban Native Americans across the United States, while active in their local communities, are often without direct ties to a particular tribe. Long overlooked, efforts to raise awareness about such groups are what led, in part, to the creation of the Soaring Eagles.

Tribal Connctions

The Soaring Eagles program is part of the Southern California American Indian Resource Center, located in San Diego, and was launched in 2008 for students from grades K through 12. The aim, according to its mission statement, is to “heal and strengthen traditional family values and instill a sense of belonging to the American tribal community through cultural awareness and friendship.”

Sensitive to the importance of keeping tradition alive, community elders like Joe Renteria have volunteered their time to mentor and guide students along a cultural path. Originally from the Kansas Cherokee Nation, the 91-year-old widower has spent the past three years helping Native youth in the Soaring Eagles program.

“Pow-wows are a place to get together and receive some spiritual healing by being around a network of people that share the same beliefs and have the same values,” says Renteria. “It’s nice to be around a group like that when you are going through a time when you need support… or in very joyous times.”

Although primarily an urban program, the Soaring Eagles enjoys the strong support of local reservations around San Diego. It was recently awarded a grant from the Barona Education Grant Program, created and administered by the nearby Barona tribal government.

“We are pleased to support this important program that encourages students to participate in these culturally enriching activities,” said Barona Tribal Chairman Edwin “Thorpe” Romero in announcing the award. Such programs, he went on, go toward “improving [Native American students’] self image and cultural pride, which impacts their success in school and life.”

Learning to Dance

The atmosphere at Soaring Eagles is nurtured by the presence and support of families and mentors. Each class begins with ancestral dance steps accompanied by a ceremonial drum song and pow-wow style round dance.

Twelve-year-old Violet DeCrane has roots in the Crow and Dine tribes, as well as Mayan ancestry. Her mother, Karen, says Violet began dancing about the time she learned to walk.

When she first joined the Soaring Eagles, she was already familiar with the Fancy Shawl and was eager to learn Jingle Dancing. She said her instructor, Chuck Cadott, “showed us what to do rather than tell us,” adding that it was “an enjoyable way to learn.”

Violet’s mother says that through the program, her daughter has made friends with others who have become interested in their own cultural traditions thanks to the Soaring Eagles.

Ann Koll attends Soaring Eagles pow-wows with her nine-year-old son, Dylan Koll. She says her experience with the program, has “taught me about my own culture, about things I never learned from history books in school.”

Pow-wows are the core of the American Indian community, facilitating communication through a ritual gathering of community members who help to preserve and pass on the culture. Such gatherings serve as an antidote to the rampant ills that plague modern society and which have hit the Native community especially hard, including alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancies and depression. Privacy and trust are essential if there is to be healing.

Numerous community agencies in San Diego, including the American Indian Health Clinic, The San Diego American Indian Youth Center, and the Southern California Tribal Chairman's Association, all see the pow-wow as the primary means of disseminating information.

“If it were not for pow-wow’s and the friends that I meet through them, I would not be able to stay in touch with my native culture,” says Arizona native Wilson Tanner, who claims Yaqui as his tribe. Tanner, 19, attended the recent Pow Wow by the Sea at San Diego’s Imperial Beach. He says he leads a nomadic lifestyle, following the pow-wow trail across the country.

“The aid and assistance that I have gotten through networking at pow-wows has provided me with the needs that I have for health and shelter,” added Tanner. “I look forward to becoming a teacher so that I can continue this cultural work.”

Since its launch, the Soaring Eagles dance troupe has steadily expanded its presence, taking third place most recently at this year’s Martin Luther King Day Parade in San Diego. The group conducts pow-wows once a year in the city’s Old Town district, and has been invited to perform at events in Los Angeles and other parts of the state.

Vicki Gambala, meanwhile, continues to beat the drum for San Diego’s urban Indian community, while her Soaring Eagles take wing. For this, the urban Indian community is grateful.